Archive | September, 2015

2015-16 CAA Basketball Preview

16 Sep

Five CAA story lines to watch…

1. Four teams finished 12-6 in CAA play last year, and I don’t expect much more clarity at the top this year, although Hofstra and Northeastern are likely ahead of the rest of the contending top half of the league. The league as a whole should have a little more depth this year though.

2. Last year’s CAA finalists, Northeastern and William & Mary, each lost a major key offensively in Scott Eatherton and Marcus Thornton (CAA POY, W&M’s all time leading scorer) respectively. Is that enough for a loaded Hofstra team to take control of the conference in Joe Mihalich’s third year at Hempstead?

3. Despite a tumultuous season last year centered around off court drama, Monte Ross’ Blue Hens could be the biggest sleeper in this year’s CAA season. One of the youngest teams in the country seemed to be putting it together at the end of the year, and they return everyone for 2015-16.

4. Kevin Keatts did a phenomenal job in his first year at UNC Wilmington, but he inherited a veteran roster. Keatts got them to buy into a new system almost immediately, but now he has a chance to prove he can do it with his guys. Another similar season for the Seahawks likely gets Keatts’ name heavily mentioned for major D1 openings.

5. CAA commissioner Tom Yeager is retiring at the end of this season. Yeager is the longest tenured commissioner in D1, entering his 30th season at the helm. Under Yeager, the CAA won 4 football national titles and went to 2 Final Fours (George Mason and VCU). He also steadied the CAA through wave after wave of realignment, as his conference, do to their success, was one of the hardest hit by defections.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Hofstra- Joe Mihalich has the Pride set up for a trip to the NCAA Tournament in his third year at the helm in Hempstead. The roster is loaded with a dynamic backcourt, a more than serviceable frontcourt, and the type of roster that can take full advantage of the 30 second shot clock on both ends of the court. Led by Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley (both of whom have been with Mihalich for five years now), the backcourt is unquestionably the heart and soul of the team. Green led the CAA in assist rate, was 18th in steal rate, can get to the FT line at will, and shot 35% from three. 6’5 Tanksley was sixth in steal rate and is also a relentless off dribble penetration, and shot 40% from three. Green and Tanksley are the engine of a Hofstra team that played the fastest pace in the CAA last season, shot more threes than any team in the CAA, and was 2nd in offensive efficiency rating. Additionally, the Pride were third in defensive efficiency rating in the CAA, largely thanks to the backcourt, as the frontcourt was stopping anything at the rim last year. Joining Green and Tanksley in the backcourt for one more year is Brian Bernardi. The SMU transfer hit 40% from 3 last year, and plays solid defense while rarely making mistakes offensively en route to posting a 118 ORtg. 6’5 Jamall Robinson will be asked to step into Dion Nesmith’s “safety valve” role. He’s not as proven of a shooter and not as a good of an on ball defender as Nesmith yet, but he has a lot more length and versatility. Mihalich also has the backcourt of the future in to learn from Green and Tanksley for a year with incoming FR Desure Buie and Justin Wright-Foreman. Both are from the Bronx and have a natural chemistry together as friends and former prep foes. Buie will see immediate minutes backing up Green, and Mihalich has already talked about using him with Green to move Juan’ya off the ball at times. Wright-Foreman will work his way into minutes because of his athleticism and ability to play above the rim despite being only 6’0. Despite the loss of Moussa Kone, the frontcourt should be much improved this year, primarily because 6’9 Rokas Gustys is available for the whole season (hopefully). Gustys is primed for a massive year if he can stay healthy and lower the foul rate. Gustys looked dominant in three March games last year. 6’6 Malik Nichols is a huge presence on the glass and gives Mihalich a ton of options defensively, and 6’10 Andre Walker returns to add some depth as well, but the frontcourt is really bolstered by the addition of two newcomers this year. 6’8 Princeton transfer Denton Koon could be a huge addition if he returns to his pre-injury 2013 form and provides some stretch shooting for the Pride. 6’10 Ibrahim Djambo, a Clemson transfer, provides a ton of athleticism around the rim and moves around the court extremely well for his size. The Malian could be a force in his first year in the CAA. Without losing much from last year and adding depth and difference makers in both the backcourt and frontcourt, I think Hofstra is a step above the rest of the CAA coming into the season.

2. Northeastern– Only seven teams in the country attempted a higher percentage of their field goal attempts at the rim than Northeastern last year, and it’s not because they were getting in transition or forcing turnovers (338th in defensive turnover rate). It’s because Bill Coen’s offense was structured to pound the ball inside to Scott Eatherton whenever possible. That philosophy paid off, as the Huskies finally returned to the NCAA Tournament and gave Notre Dame a scare. However, Eatherton graduated and took his 63% shooting percentage on 302 2PTAs with him, as well as his 5th best defensive rebounding rate in the CAA. That’s a ton of minutes and a ton of shots from a big to replace, but Coen does return the other four starters from last year’s team. Despite shooting the three at 39% last year, it simply wasn’t part of the game plan with Eatherton inside, but it might have to have a larger role this year, especially with zone presses a lot of teams are going to work in with the 30 second shot clock. The influx of zone presses is a little worrisome for a team that doesn’t rely on a traditional point guard role (as is the 308th worst offensive turnover rate), but TJ Williams and David Walker actually did a fine job distributing the ball when they didn’t turn it over, and that includes “point forward” Zach Stahl. In that regard, incoming FR PG Red Gresham could see some immediate minutes if Coen feels he needs a more traditional ball handler. Coen has a monster recruiting class to replace Eatherton and Reggie Spencer in the frontcourt. 6’10 local product Jeremy Miller and 6’11 Sajon Ford (brother of Quincy) will see immediate minutes and possible starting roles, Miller especially. Slasher/shooter Quincy Ford returns as well to join Walker and Stahl, giving Coen a ton of length from rim to perimeter. With that length across the perimeter, Coen’s defenses tend to not gamble or overly help on penetration, preferring to completely take away the three point line, which is why they allowed the lowest 3PTA rate and the lowest FTA rate in the CAA last year. However, a lot depends on the talented but young frontcourt. There’s not a lot of depth up front to help the kids, so Miller and Ford need to prove they have a short learning curve in their first year. Northeastern also welcomes in Michigan State to Matthews Arena in a huge non conference game for the Huskies. Kudos to the Spartans for making the trip to one of the great gyms in the country.

3. James Madison– Matt Brady has a loaded returning roster bolstered by some underrated newcomers who should fill holes immediately. The backcourt returns the most underrated PG in a league filled with great PGs last year, as Ron Curry was 6th in assist rate in CAA play and shot an absurd 47% from three against conference foes last year. The SR PG is unquestionably the heart of the Dukes, and everyone around him returns, including capable shooters and defensive stalwarts Joey McLean and Winston Grays. 6’7 wing Jackson Kent also returns his 42% three point shooting and ability to cause wreak some havoc on the perimeter with his length. The backcourt is bolstered this year by 6’4 Butler transfer Devontae Morgan and 6’7 JUCO transfer Shakir Brown. Morgan adds some athleticism to the backcourt, which will be needed to add some pressure to Brady’s zone looks. JMU simply wasn’t very good defensively last year, and they were torched by perimeter oriented teams like William & Mary. Brady has to amp up the pressure with the 30 second shot clock in play, and the length of Brown and Morgan should allow him to do that. Brown also has some range at 6’7, and could quickly develop into one of the better wings in the CAA. FR Kevin Kangni has a better handle than McLean, and will see minutes spelling Curry and in smaller lineups. The frontcourt is anchored by 6’9 Yohanny Dalembert, who led the CAA in block rate. He also looked dominant offensively during JMU’s 5 game February winning streak last year. 6’10 Dimitrije Cabarkpa showed he can develop into a much needed stretch shooter, as he hit 16-40 threes last year. Tom Vodanovich and Paulius Satkus both return as well, and both proved to be capable performers inside when called upon. The Duke were a young team who quietly surpassed expectations last year despite some off the court issues involving Andre Nation, and worked their way into the 12-6 logjam atop the CAA. This year’s team has much higher expectations, but the Dukes should once again be near the top of the standings at the end of the year.

4. Delaware- The Blue Hens battled through a tumultuous year, particularly surrounding the contract status of Monte Ross, a drama that played out basically though the course of the entire season and was potentially at the root of one of the best Delaware recruits of all time, Eli Cain, hopping over to DePaul. On top of that Jarvis Threatt was booted from the team, continuing a trend of player suspensions and dismissals. All that being said, one of the youngest teams in the country appeared to be putting it all together at the end of the year, winning four of their last five and taking Northeastern to the wire in the CAA Tournament. That young Hens team from last year returns everyone except Kyle Anderson, including Monte Ross. The returnees start with SO PG Kory Holden, who is coming off a phenomenal freshman year that saw him post the second highest assist rate in the CAA and get to the FT line relentlessly, and develop a perimeter jump shot as the season progressed. He was a bit turnover prone, but that should improve with more experience. With Anderson gone, Cazmon Hayes is able to slide into a more natural two position. Hayes thrived in Ross’ dribble drive offense, and was developing a jump shot, in addition to being a solid on ball defender. Holden and Hayes should form one of the better backcourts in the CAA this year, especially with 6’7 Chivarsky Corbett primed for a massive year on the wing. Corbett shot 39% from 3 in his FR season and is capable of guarding 2-5. With Corbett at the 3, Ross has the long, versatile lineup that should allow him to push the tempo again, and resemble the 8th fastest team in the country that went to the NCAA Tournament two years ago. The backcourt also features some solid depth with Devonne Pinkard providing Ross with another lengthy shooter, and Champ Mosley a capable back up to Holden who can provide some serious ball pressure in smaller lineups as well. The frontcourt also returns everyone of note, and while not showcased in Ross’ offense, they fit in perfectly and know their roles. Marvin King-Davis is healthy and is one of the better defensive rebounders in the CAA, capable of starting the break off the glass as well. Mo Jeffers complements him as one of the best offensive rebounders in the CAA, as well as the best rim protector on the team. The frontcourt is thin depth wise if Eric Carter’s ACL injury is as significant as it appears to be. All in all, the Hens are definite sleeper in the CAA, and if Holden and Hayes have the backcourt playing at the level of Threatt and Saddler two years ago, they could win the whole thing. High ceiling for this team.

5. William & Mary- Another year of heartbreak for the Tribe, as they barely missed out on their first NCAA Tournament appearance, losing in the CAA title game for the second year in a row. Tony Shaver’s squad returns four starters and basically the entire bench, but the one guy gone is Marcus Thornton, the best scorer in the history of William & Mary basketball. The 6’4 PG was 1st in % of minutes in CAA play, 6th in usage, 4th in % of shots, 10th in assist rate, shot 40% from three, and was an 82% FT shooter. Truly a once-in-a-program type of player. Shaver’s 4 out 1 in motion offense was so effective because of a lethal combo threat like Thornton. So how does he replace him? He’ll need a huge season out of 6’6 Slovakian point guard Oliver Tot. Tot has a preternatural sense of spacing and passing angles, and could be a perfect fit for Shaver’s offense. He has the potential to become a household name this year, that is if your household is really into CAA basketball. Tot will be aided by Colorado State transfer David Cohn, who can also run the point. The Tribe’s offense is going to run at the 27th best rate in the country again, but the steepness of the drop off is highly dependent on how Tot and Cohn fill in for Thornton. The rest of the pieces from last year’s team will help as well, as 6’5 Terry Tarpey, 6’5 Daniel Dixon, and 6’6 Omar Prewitt lead the way. Tarpey is so key because of his athleticism and versatility defensively. Tarpey was first in steal rate in the CAA, while also posting the fifth highest block rate. He has underrated ball skills offensively, and is a very effective passer out of the high post. He’s truly one of the most underrated players in the country. Dixon is poised for a huge year with more shooting opportunities on the table. His 44% three point percentage will take a hit with defenses focusing on him instead of Thornton, but in Shaver’s offense that produced the 23rd highest 3PTA rate, he and Prewitt and 6’5 Greg Malinowksi (20-38 from 3 as a FR) are going to have ample opportunities. Shaver also has 6’8 redshirt FR Paul Rowley eligible this year as well. Rowley was one of the top rated Virginia preps two years ago, and spent last year learning the offense and is capable of providing Shaver with a corner stretch shooter. Throw in Connor Burchfield and Shaver has the length and depth of interchangeable parts that makes his offense thrive. The frontcourt also returns everyone, led by 6’9 Sean Sheldon. Sheldon isn’t a big part of the offense, but knows his role and cleans up the offensive glass. Jack Whitman and FR Hunter Seacat provide some depth up front. The Tribe are going to fall off without Thornton, but just how far remains to be seen, as Tot and Cohn hold the key.

6. Elon- The Phoenix had their season derailed early last year because of the injury to Luke Eddy, who looked like he was on pace for a massive season. In an offense modeled after Bob McKillop’s, his shooting was irreplaceable. Eddy will be back and healthy this year, but the Matt Matheny was dealt an offseason blow with the transfer of CAA Freshman of the Year Elijah Bryant to BYU. Bryant’s departure is eased by the return of Eddy and the addition of high scoring Charlotte prep 6’4 Steven Santa Ana, who could potentially start immediately. 6’4 three point volume shooter Tanner Samson also returns to the backcourt, as does SO Dmitri Thompson, an improving slasher who provides solid perimeter defense. The frontcourt returns versatile 6’7 Christian Hairston, senior Tony Sabato, and 6’8 Brian Dawkins, who missed all of last year with a knee injury. 6’6 Collin Luther and 6’8 Jack Anton have both proven capable of stretching defenses in their limited minutes on the court. 6’10 Jack George is eligible after a redshirt season, but doesn’t really work in Matheny’s offense. He’s capable of providing some minutes when the Phoenix are forced to play big vs Northeastern. The big addition to the frontcourt is 6’11 Lithuanian Karolis Kundrotas. Kundrotas was a UNCC commit until Alan Major was fired, and will provide Matheny with the mobile big he needs to stretch defenses. 6’8 FR Tyler Seibring also figures to be in the mix for minutes this year. With Eddy back and two big time additions in Santa Ana and Kundrotas, Matheny’s offense should be firing on all cylinders again, and year similar to 2013 and 2014 is entirely realistic.

7. UNC Wilmington– Kevin Keatts probably deserved some national coach of the year recognition for the job he did in his first year at UNCW, as he got an inherited veteran team to buy into his pressing/trapping style and the Seahawks finished in the 12-6 logjam atop the league. Despite not having any depth and playing up tempo, the Seahawks never quit or ran out of gas, a testament to how much they bought in. Keatts has a lot of roster turnover to deal with this year, but he at least has some of his guys in there now too. Gone are seniors Addison Spruill, Freddie Jackson, and Cedrick Williams, and Malik Pugh left the program as well, but Keatts has a lot of interchangeable parts coming in that will fit his uptempo, pressure and trap heavy style, a style seemingly tailor made for the 30 second shot clock era. The backcourt is set with Craig Ponder and Jordon Talley returning. Talley is poised for a breakout year in his SO campaign at PG. He’s a great on ball defender and the key to Keatts’ defense. Ponder meanwhile simply shot an absurd 45% from 3 last year. Jarvis Haywood is ineligible for the first semester, but if he can get it together and qualify for the second half of the season, he’ll provide some instant offense for the Seahawks. He’s a pure scorer who averaged 17ppg in his last season at Jacksonville. Freshman combo guard Mark Matthews will score some points in Keatts’ system, and could help fill the Freddie Jackson role, while CJ Bryce is another FR combo guard who will see immediate minutes because of his ability to play 1-3. D2 transfer 6’5 wing Chris Flemmings will have an immediate role as well because of his versatility on both ends of the court.  The frontcourt features the best of the newcomers, FR Trey Grundy who at 6’7 is long and versatile. Matthews, Bryce, and Grundy all looked solid in an offseason trip to the Bahamas. The frontcourt also returns Chuck Ogbodo, who has the potential to be one of the best rebounders and shot blockers in the CAA because of his ability to run the floor in Keatts’ system. Dylan Sherwood is a stretch 4 and a key to Keatts’ traps because of mobile length. UNCC transfer Marcus Bryan provides some depth up front, as does 7 footer CJ Gettys, who provided solid minutes last year when Keatts had to go with a bigger lineup. The incoming talent has an abundance of length and versatility, and it’s just a matter of how quickly they adapt to Keatts’ style. If Keatts produces another 12-6 season, which in within the realm of possibility, he could be on the go to a major program.

8. Towson- Pat Skerry might have something cooking after an abysmal season that saw the Tigers lose 8 of their last 9 after an upset win at Hofstra. Skerry has major conference talent coming in, but he has to do something about the ground and pound offense that led to the 330th slowest pace in the country last year. A 20 second APL isn’t going to cut it with a 30 second shot clock. The Tigers rarely shot the three last year, and when they did, they only hit at 30%. No team in the country scored a higher percentage of their points at the FT line than Towson last year, as they basically only scored via foul or offensive putback (third highest offensive reb rate in the country paired with the third highest FT rate). Four McGlynn, the only player capable of hitting a perimeter shot last year, is gone. A whole lot needs to change about this offense, but the Tigers are unquestionably more athletic this year, and I think Skerry is ready to amp up the pressure with all the mobile length he has, and drastically increase the tempo and get some easy buckets in transition. When a guy like Pat Skerry is talking about utilizing zone pressure because of the 30 second shot clock, you know it’s going to be prevalent nationwide. The backcourt is led by a trio of sophomores, Byron Hawkins, Mike Morsell, and Eddie Keith. Hawkins had an up and down FR year at the point, but really needs to reduce the turnovers in his second season. Skerry has a healthy Josh Ivory to turn to at the point as well. Morsell and Keith have a ton of length and versatility, and Morsell particularly turned it on in February, and is a likely candidate to lead the team in scoring this year. Skerry also has slasher Arnaud Adala Moto eligible this year on the wing. Moto is a former three star recruit from Wake Forest, and will instantly be the most athletic player in the CAA. He’s capable of guarding 1-4, and looked great for Cameroon during the FIBA games this summer. The Tigers already suffered a fairly significant injury, as 6’6 wing AJ Astroth is out for the year with an ACL tear. His loss will be felt most defensively. The frontcourt returns 6’5 bulldog John Davis, who despite his size, led the CAA in offensive reb rate and was 4th defensively. He draws a ton of contact around the rim as well. Timajh Parker-Rivera returns with a bulked up Walter Foster, who has a chance to be the most improved player in the CAA. 6’8 athletic FR Dennis Tunstall could play himself into minutes because of his ability to play above the rim. The length and versatility is there for Skerry to open things up at Towson this year, and he practically has to, because this team is completely devoid of shooters.

9. Drexel- Once again, Bruiser Flint dealt with an obscene amount of injuries last year, two of which occurred before the season started. The good news is that those two guys are back (Kazembe Abif and Major Canady), and the Dragons return some depth and experience because of those injuries. Unfortunately, with Damion Lee off to Louisville, scoring figures to once again be a major issue. Even with Lee, the Dragons were 317th in eFG%, and 332nd in 2PT% offense. Lee had a 118.4 ORtg last year. The next highest rating with above 15% of shots taken was Sammy Mojica at 99.5. One of the big offseason questions is who runs the point, SO Rashann London or Canady? Canady is bigger than London, and more steady with the ball (a major necessity in Flint’s methodical, screen heavy offense), but London offers more upside offensively, something Drexel desperately needs. Mojica, who shot 39% from three in CAA play, and Utah transfer Ahmad Fields figure to shoulder the majority of the scoring left behind by Lee, as well as veteran Tavon Allen on the wing. Fields and Mojica are the keys though, as Allen has proven he simply isn’t a good enough shooter to be relied upon for the majority of the offense. He’s an effective facilitator of offense, especially in finding the open man when backing down a smaller defender, but relying on him to take over for Lee isn’t going to work. The frontcourt returns Abif from his second major knee injury, and he looked primed for a big year two years ago before the first injury. Rodney Williams returns to the frontcourt healthy as well, and he looked explosive around the rim offensively, defensively, and on the glass when he was healthy. Because of all those injuries, Flint suddenly has some depth in the frontcourt this year, as Mohamed Bah and Tyshawn Myles both showed flashes last year when forced into minutes. There’s talent on this Dragons squad, but scoring is once again going to be a major issue, and Flint isn’t exactly the type of coach who inspires a ton of confidence with five less seconds to work with on the shot clock.

10. Charleston- Earl Grant didn’t use his late hire at C of C as an excuse in terms of hindering his progress on the recruiting trail, as he landed one of the better classes in the league this year. Grant added some serious backcourt talent in Marquise Pointer, Grant Riller, and Payton Hulsey. Pointer, a 3 star Rivals recruit out of Arkansas, is the point guard of the future and will bring immediate help defensively this year. Riller is a pure scorer out of Florida, which is exactly what this team needs, and Hulsey is a JUCO transfer by way of Western Kentucky who will form a solid wing nucleus with Cam Johnson this year. With veterans Joe Chealey and Canyon Barry returning, the Cougar backcourt is the undoubted strength of the team, and should force Grant into dramatically increasing the tempo from last year’s 322nd pace ranked squad. The Cougars were the least efficient offense in the CAA last year, and Chealey and Barry could both see their minutes cut into by Pointer and Riller. [UPDATE: JOE CHEALEY OUT FOR THE YEAR. This opens the door for Hulsey, Pointer, and Johnson at the point. A brutal loss for the Cougars, but they have some depth.] The one thing C of C did well last year was defend inside. They had the best 2PT% defense in the CAA, and only 45% of their opponents’ point came via 2PTer, the best rate in the conference. But with Adjehi Baru gone and 6’10 redshirt FR Nick Harris (one of the top rated big men in Georgia two years ago) already battling a shoulder injury, Grant will be relying on unproven Donovan Gilmore and Terrance O’Donohue inside. With Glen Pierre and David Wishon also gone, there is very little depth and experience inside. 6’6 SO Evan Bailey can shoot the ball, but doesn’t offer much around the rim on either end of the court. 6’8 James Bourne, a Winthrop grad transfer coming off knee surgery, is going to be relied upon heavily inside. Overall, Grant is shifting the focus to a more backcourt oriented, transition team, which in the long run, is a good thing, and with Pointer and Riller, the Cougars are going to surprise some teams this year.

Advertisements

2015-16 Southern Conference Preview

5 Sep

Five SoCon story lines to follow this season…

1. Wofford has been the class of the league the past two years, but the loss of Karl Cochran brings them back to the field a bit, making the SoCon an unpredictable and deep league this year.

2. Three new coaches enter the league (Matt McCall, Dan Earl, and Steve Forbes), while Duggar Baucom switches teams within the league. McCall inherits a loaded roster in Chattanooga, Earl has a full cupboard at VMI as well but will likely implement a radically different offensive approach, and Forbes brings in a lot of high major transfer talent to Johnson City. Meanwhile, Baucom will attempt to turn one of the slowest teams in the country into one of the most uptempo teams in just one year.

3. Wes Miller was given a contract extension despite three straight sub .500 SoCon seasons. His UNCG Spartans return nearly everyone this year, so we’ll quickly see if Kim Record’s faith will be rewarded.

4. Gone are backcourt stars Karl Cochran, Jalen Riley, Rashawn Rembert, Ike Nwamu, and Slick Sinclair in a league known for guard play, and the league might be shifting slightly towards a “bigger” style of play to combat interior presences like RJ White and Justin Tuoyo.

5. A young and often injured Furman team pieced together one of the greatest late season SoCon runs of all time before falling to Wofford in the title game (history might have been made had Kris Acox not gone down early). The Paladins return Stephen Croone and a slew of young but season talented. Can they handle the weight of sudden expectations?

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Chattanooga– Tough call here. Could easily be the Mocs, could be Wofford, could be Furman. UTC has the most returning talent, but they’re also replacing Will Wade. I think Matt McCall is going to be a success, but this is his first head coaching job, and the Mocs and the fans really bought into Wade and his style, and the Mocs were 27-7 in SoCon play in his two seasons at the helm. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate into SoCon tourney success, but Wade proved he was ready to take over a major program, and off to VCU he returned. McCall comes in from the Billy Donovan coaching tree and immediately steps into an outstanding situation. He inherits a winning, veteran team, and one that fits in *perfectly* with the defensive principles he learned under Donovan. The Mocs are long and versatile, and will be able to switch between man/zone/press and get in transition frequently. This is a defense seemingly built for the 30 second shot clock. Donovan’s best Florida defenses were predicated on tough man to man, not helping on penetration, and taking away everything at the rim. You may get into the lane, but you’re not going to score once you get there. Not over helping on penetration allowed all three point attempts on a kick-out to be highly contested. I expect McCall to bring the same mentality to UTC, and he has one of the best rim protectors in the country at his disposal in Justin Tuoyo. Tuoyo led the SoCon in block rate en route to being named the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, as well as leading UTC to the best 2PT% defense in the league. With Tuoyo anchoring the middle, UTC’s lengthy perimeter can basically deny everything at the three point line, and only 12 teams in the country had a defense with a lower 3PTA rate than the Mocs. That lengthy perimeter also disrupts passing lanes and wreaks “chaos” on smaller SoCon guards, and only 9 defenses nationally allowed a lower assist rate than the Mocs. This defense is going to be one of the best in terms of taking full advantage of the 30 second shot clock, and it’s going to pay off with quick transition buckets as well. The backcourt I’m speaking of is comprised of PG Greg Pryor, who had the highest steal rate on the team last year, and he’s a capable shooter and rim attacker offensively. He’ll have full PG duties with Rico White graduated. Team leader Casey Jones also returns. Jones does everything well across the board, except shoot the ball from outside. Versatile 6’5 wing Tre McLean also returns, as does 6’4 sharp shooter Eric Robertson, a key piece to the Mocs’ title hopes, as he’s the only real deep threat that will see heavy minutes. Robertson was an absurd 39-88 from three in SoCon play last year. 6’4 UT Martin transfer Dee Oldham will provide some depth on the wing, and 6’4 shooter Peyton Woods should see plenty of minutes as a FR if he shows he can shoot at the D1 level. JUCO Johnathan Burroughs-Cook should feel at ease in the backcourt with Pryor, as they were running mates as Memphis preps. The frontcourt is of course anchored by Justin Tuoyo, and Duke Ethridge and Chuck Ester return as well, but depth could be an issue there. 7 footer Trey Kalina was added to the roster, but he looks like a project and a potential redshirt candidate. In short, this Mocs team has the versatility and experience to finally topple Wofford, which has become a great rivalry of late (see “The Cochran game” at McKenzie last year).

2. Wofford– The first order of business for Mike Young and the two time defending SoCon champs is to find a way to replace the sheer volume of production left behind by do everything guard Karl Cochran. In the SoCon last year, Cochran was 11th in percentage of minutes played, 3rd in shot rate, 6th in usage, 12th in both defensive rebounding rate (!) and assist rate, 7th in block rate (!), 2nd in steal rate, shot 38% from 3 in 150 attempts, all while posting a 109.2 ORtg. That is literally massive production all across the board. He did the work of three players basically. He also routinely bailed out Wofford’s methodical motion offense late in the shot clock. That missing “intangible” could be something of a major issue for a Terriers offense that clocked in at 326th nationally in terms of tempo, especially given the new 30 second shot clock. The good news is that Young does return a lot of winning, veteran players, like Eric Garcia and Spencer Collins in the backcourt. Both Garcia and Collins had fantastic, efficient offensive seasons last year (helps when you have a defense magnet like Cochran on the court with you though), and Collins is likely to have a big statistical year as he’ll shoulder most of the load left behind by Cochran. One of the big offseason questions is who steps into the third guard position in Young’s motion heavy offense? Well, he has a few options, and I’m sure he’ll explore all of them early in the year. I think SO Jaylen Allen definitely has the inside track to that job because of his shooting ability and on ball defense, but Derrick Brooks and Larry McKnight will certainly push for minutes, McKnight especially if Young wants to go with a slightly bigger lineup. The frontcourt should be fairly solid despite the loss of Lee Skinner. Justin Gordon and CJ Neumann have both proven to be efficient block scorers and rebounders, particularly Neumann on the glass. Cam Jackson should see an expanded role in the frontcourt, and Evansville transfer Ryan Sawvell will see a lot of minutes as well, especially with his knowledge of motion offenses. 6’10 FR Matt Pegram could be a factor, but could also be a redshirt candidate. Mike Young’s tough man to man defense will use the 30 second shot clock to their advantage on that end, but I have some fairly serious concerns about a methodical offense with a 19.3 APL and one that was so reliant on Cochran, being able to score efficiently with that same clock. Wofford took just 14.8% of their shots in transition last year, the 18th lowest rate in the country.

3. Furman– Niko Medved and his Paladins are poised for a breakout year with nearly everyone returning (and healthy) from last year’s surprise SoCon Tournament finalists. This was a very young team last year riddled with injuries, but they put it all together and nearly stunned Wofford in the SoCon finals, and they very well could have pulled it off if Kris Acox didn’t get hurt early in the first half. With higher expectations comes more pressure, but fortunately Medved has do everything senior PG Stephen Croone to keep this team poised. Croone is unquestionably the “Karl Cochran” of this year’s SoCon, and with a player of that caliber in this league, it’s been proven that a lot of flaws can be minimized. Croone put up a very similar stat line to Cochran’s last year in SoCon play…2nd in usage, 4th in percentage of shots, 19th in defensive rebound rate, 8th in assist rate (while rarely turning the ball over), 6th in steal rate, 4th in FT rate, all while compiling a 108 ORtg. Croone can do it all, but fortunately, he doesn’t have to this year. The senior is surrounded three talented sophomore returning to the backcourt: rim attacker and developing shooter Devin Sibley, versatile Daniel Fowler who can serve as something of a point forward at times, allowing Croone to work off the ball, and John Davis III, and undersized combo guard. Throw Florida prep Jon Jean into the mix and the Paladin backcourt is loaded. Jean should see immediate minutes as a FR because he’s a pure PG and a steady ball handler, something that the Paladins lacked outside of Croone, which led to a lot of ball pressure in a ball pressure heavy league. The turnovers were a major reason why Furman was dead last in offensive efficiency in league play last year. The frontcourt also returns everyone, but they’re a touch undersized and allowed teams to shoot 64% at the rim last year. Kendrec Ferrara is a very effective rim protector, but he doesn’t have much help beside him. Junior Kris Acox is the key to the frontcourt offensively, as he shot 60% from 2 and drew a ton of contact. Despite being just 6’6, he led the SoCon in offensive rebounding rate and was third in defensive rebounding rate. Furman very well could have been dancing last year if not for that unfortunate injury. Geoff Beans returns as well in the stretch 4 role. Beans’ production dropped off dramatically in SoCon play (was also battling concussion issues), but he showed how important he can be to this offense when he’s confident and healthy when he went 5-7 from three in SoCon title game. SR Larry Wideman brings some experience, versatility, and depth to the frontcourt, while incoming FR Matt Rafferty out of Illinois should see significant minutes this year as well. Expectations are high for the Paladins, something they’re not exactly used to, but with Croone at the helm, I think this team will remain focused, and if they stay healthy, they’re as good a pick as UTC or Wofford to win the SoCon.

4. Mercer– It’s hard to know what to make of Mercer this year, but with Bob Hoffman roaming the sidelines still, a top half finish is a safe bet. Many, myself included, expected a fairly steep drop off for Mercer as they moved on from the senior laden team that upset Duke, especially since they were transitioning to the SoCon. Foolish. The Bears went 12-6 and earned another postseason berth, all while Hoffman introduced a wrinkle into his notoriously fluid motion offense (built with the famous 5 on 0 drill). None of Hoffman’s Mercer teams had ever finished outside of the top 100 nationally in 3PTA rate, and conversely none had ever finished in the top 100 nationally in FTA rate. Those numbers were reversed last year, as Hoffman designed the motion offense to attack gaps and play to the strength of his team (Ike Nwamu), and the Bears were 203rd in 3PTA rate and 68th in FTA rate. It was really quite remarkable to watch a style you thought you knew like the back of your hand, and then see it almost in reverse. Hoffman’s different zone defenses were also a bit unlucky, as teams basically fired away from deep at just a slightly higher rate than the year before, but hit at a 7% higher clip. I expect the defensive numbers to improve just out of sheer luck this year, but the offense I’m a bit concerned about (once again, I’ll likely be eating these words). Gone is the best shooter and potent rim attacker Nwamu, and Darious Moten and TJ Hallice leave a large void inside. If I had to guess, I think we’re likely to see more of last year’s version of the motion offense that exploits gaps, since Phil Leonard is the best returning player on the roster. Leonard was an even more explosive rim attacker than Nwamu, as he had the second highest FT rate in SoCon play, while also posting the second highest assist rate. Naturally, his ORtg was on off the charts 120. The problem is that he doesn’t have a jump shot, and neither does understudy Jordan Strawberry, as the two were a combined 14-52 from three last year. Jibri Bryan and Jestin Lewis also return to the backcourt, and both are capable shooters, but I see their value defensively, as I think you might see Hoffman use more of a matchup zone this year to try to exploit Bryan and Lewis’ defensive prowess and the 30 second shot clock. The most notable addition to the backcourt is 6’5 Ethan Stair. He’s built in the vain of nightly triple double threat Langston Hall, a big point guard who can wreak havoc all over the court. If Stair is as good as advertised, he could immediately join Leonard in the backcourt. Hoffman reloaded the frontcourt quickly, as 6’9 South Carolina transfer Desmond Ringer figures to join SO Stephon Jelks immediately on the block. The addition of Ringer and the reported improvement of 6’10 Nikolas Ney, plus the addition of massive 7’1 Andrew Fishler should allow Jelks to turn into something of a stretch 4 this year. Because of the lack of overall size inside last season, he was forced to stay tethered to the lane, but if Ringer, Ney, and Fishler can stay on the court, Jelks could easily triple his 27 three point attempts from last year and morph into a Jakob Gollon type player. While I’m concerned about the methodical motion offense with the 30 second shot clock, I have a lot of faith in Bob Hoffman, and Mercer has the pieces to certainly crack that top 3 tier I outlined earlier.

5. ETSU– Gone is longtime Bucs coach Murry Bartow, and you wonder if he’d still be at the helm if ETSU had a little better luck in SoCon play. The Bucs were competitive in every loss, as the only double digit loss they suffered in SoCon play was by 10 to Wofford. Regardless, Steve Forbes takes over in Johnson City, and he’s from the budding Gregg Marshall coaching tree, with a little Bruce Pearl flavoring mixed in as well. Forbes is known as an outstanding recruiter with a good knowledge of the area, and he has a ton of high major transfer talent coming in immediately. Forbes’ first order of business is replacing the backcourt of Jalen Riley and Rashawn Rembert. No one in the country was used on higher percentage of his team’s possessions and no one in the country took a higher percentage of his team’s shots than Jalen Riley did last year, and only three players in the country got to the FT line at a higher rate than Riley. On top of that, you have to replace Rembert’s 200+ three point attempts. Both were key defensively as well at the top of Bartow’s aggressive zone press, which produced the 37th highest turnover rate in the country last year. So how does Forbes replace all that production? Easy, grad transfers. Ge’Lawn Guyn comes over from Cincinnati and should immediately run the point with returnee Petey McClain, who should enjoy the fresh start with Forbes after not always being on the same page with Bartow. McClain led the SoCon in assist rate last year, but also turned the ball over at an impressive clip. Guyn will provide another ball handler and relentless on ball defense. Columbia State CC transfer TJ Cromer will join returnee AJ Merriweather in the backcourt as well, as Merriweather should be able to play a more natural 2 position this year. The most intriguing of the grad transfers though is Baylor via Missouri wing Deuce Bello. Bello immediately becomes one of the best athletes in the league, and provides versatile, all over the court defense. 6’4 shooter Lester Wilson returns as well, and 6’6 FR Shemar Johnson could be a major factor on the wing with some seasoning and bulk. In short, Forbes did an unbelievable job of restocking the backcourt with premier SoCon talent in short order. The frontcourt is immediately improved as well, which wasn’t hard since the Bucs simply didn’t have a frontcourt last year. With Ron Giplaye missing virtually the entire season, and Alex Bates hurt as well, Bartow was forced to use that zone press exclusively last year. Forbes inherits a now eligible 7’0 Peter Jurkin from Indiana. If Jurkin can give Forbes 20 minutes a night, it could be a game changer. Nigel Holley out of Vincennes and Abednego Lufile provide some frontcourt depth out of the JUCO ranks. Forbes also has big men Tevin Glass from Wichita State and Hanner Mosquera-Perea eligible next year. If Forbes and all the new pieces gel come SoCon Tourney time, the Bucs are step above mere “sleeper” with all this talent laden roster, especially since they’ll be so versatile defensively.

6. UNC Greensboro– Wes Miller hasn’t exactly built on his promising rookie season (or made very many friends within the SoCon coach’s fraternity) at UNCG four years ago, but AD Kim Record gave him the benefit of the doubt and rewarded him with a contract extension. While the 19-33 SoCon mark in the past three seasons doesn’t seem to justify the extension, the Spartans did battle through an injury plagued season last year, and Miller is recruiting at a high level for this year with a pair of guards, and beyond. While this isn’t a make or break year for Miller, it’s shaping up to be a pivotal year, as the Spartans return everyone except stretch 4 Nicholas Paulos, and add those dynamic FR guards in the backcourt. The problem is that returning everyone from a team that was maddeningly inconsistent and only beat one team (at ETSU) that finished in the SoCon top 5 isn’t exactly awe inspiring. But, again, there were a plethora of injuries, and Miller was at times using a 7 man rotation last year. Despite the loss of Paulos, the Spartans return arguably the best frontcourt in the league. When the guards could get him the ball, RJ White was essentially unstoppable on the block. White shot 61% from two in SoCon play, and he posted the highest defensive rebounding rate coupled with the third highest block rate. It’s tough to be a great defensive rebounder and a shot blocker, as going for the block often leaves you out of position for any missed shots. White’s foul rate was an issue last year, as he fouled out of 9 contests and had four fouls in 13 more games. However, with a healthy surrounding frontcourt, Miller should be able to sit White more frequently when he gets in trouble. Speaking of returning frontcourt players, Kayel Locke returns, as does a healthy Marvin Smith and a healthy Jordy Kuiper. With Locke back, and Smith and the massive Kuiper healthy, White could be even more effective offensively, and his foul rate should drop significantly. The backcourt also returns everyone, but that also means the backcourt could be an issue again. Diante Baldwin and Tevon Saddler both return, but they have to dramatically improve their efficiency if the Spartans are going to contend for the SoCon title, which I think they’re capable of given the talent level and experience on the roster. Saddler in particular is such a polarizing player because he’s capable of totally dominating a game (see his lines @ETSU, vs The Citadel, and @UTC) or he can totally shoot his team out of the game. He can at times be a great distributor as teams suck down on his penetration (third in assist rate in SoCon play), but he can also be a turnover machine when he forces the action. He also completely lacks a perimeter shot (miserable 9-47 from 3 last year), meaning teams can really pack in the lane and deny penetration. His running mate, Diante Baldwin, is essentially the same player. He just doesn’t shoot as much. Saddler and Baldwin were a combined 20-87 from three last year. That’s…not good. Asad Lamot returns as well, and he proved to be a capable shooter in a small sample size when he was pressed into action because of all the injuries. Miller rightfully rewarded him with a scholarship this year. Some shooting help for the backcourt is coming in though, as Clay Byrd returns (40% three point shooter in SoCon play when healthy), and Miller brought in a pair of highly regarded FR guards, Demetrius Troy and Francisco Alonso. Troy could become one of the best pure scorers in the SoCon, while Alonso will provide some perimeter shooting. If Saddler/Baldwin continue with their inefficient play, Miller has options in the backcourt this year.

7. Western Carolina– Larry Hunter and the Catamounts find themselves in a similar situation as Wofford and ETSU in that they have to replace the production of an outstanding guard, in this case Slick Sinclair. Sinclair was 2nd in both percentage of minutes played and percentage of shots in the SoCon last year, in addition to being 4th in usage. Sinclair was also a force defensively, ranking 9th in steal rate in SoCon play. Despite the loss of Sinclair, the backcourt should once again be the strength of the team, especially if Dev Peterson can emerge as a ball handler to allow Rhett Harrelson to continue to be a gunner. Harrelson shot 220 threes last year, hitting at a 37% clip. SR Mike Brown also returns in the backcourt, and will try to do his best Sinclair impersonation in terms of filling up the stat sheet. FR Elijah Pughsley will also see immediate minutes at the point, particularly because his on ball defense will translate immediately. 6’4 SR Justin Browning, a versatile lock down defender returns on the wing, as does 6’5 Haboubacar Mutombo, who played sparingly after becoming eligible in December last year. Mutombo figures to have a much larger role this year. The addition of 6’5 Deriece Parks on the wing as well gives Hunter the flexibility he lacked last year, as a lack of length across the court was a major issue. As for the frontcourt, Torrion Brummitt returns, and as far as experience goes, that’s about it. Hunter has some promising FR in a pair of 6’7 fours, Frenchman Marc Gosselin and Jesse Deloach. Those two will be relied upon to help Brummitt ASAP because of Tucker Thompson’s transfer, as will 6’9 Charlendez Brooks. While the backcourt may be able to sustain the loss of Sinclair, I’m not sure the Catamounts improved the frontcourt to avoid the same pitfalls as last year.

8. The Citadel– To me, Duggar Baucom hopping over to The Citadel from VMI is by far the most interesting coaching change in the country. The Citadel was 344th in adjusted tempo last year, but in comes Duggie, who steered VMI to the fastest pace in the country last year. The disparate numbers between The Citadel under Chuck Driesell and VMI under Duggar Baucom are endlessly fascinating. To wit, only 15% of The Citadel’s shot attempts came in transition, while VMI was at a whopping 31%. I want to watch The Citadel’s first season under Baucom with a white lab coat and a clipboard. This coaching change is in the realm of theoretical science, but it’s actually happening! In real life! In the SoCon! There is a full six second difference in APL from The Citadel last year compared to VMI. The Citadel was dead last in the SoCon in defensive turnover rate last year, while VMI of course led the conference. So, the question is, how does Duggie pull off this 180 in one off season? In Baucom’s first season at VMI implementing his high pressure, transition heavy system, the Keydets went 2-14 in Big South play, losing their last 12 in a row (VMI went from 161st in pace under Bart Bellairs to 13th under Baucom). The difference here is that this is an in conference change, and the remaining players from last year’s The Citadel squad somewhat know what to expect, and Baucom has some grad transfers coming in who fit his system. Interestingly, the one thing The Citadel did well as a team last year was shoot the three, in fact only six teams had a higher three point shooting percentage than the Bulldogs. Equally interesting, no team in the country shot the three at a higher rate than the Baucom’s Keydets last year. Unfortunately, the two guys shooting those threes for The Citadel, Jake Wright and Ashton Moore, aren’t on the team this year. Baucom has a pair of grad transfers in PJ Boutte from IUPUI and Derrick Henry from Winthrop who figure to take over the backcourt this year, along with returnees Warren Sledge and Tim Broom (who showed a propensity to thrive in a fast tempo offense in limited minutes last year). Boutte will undoubtedly provide the ball pressure Baucom covets, but none of the three are the volume three point shooter that thrives in Baucom’s system. Enter freshman Quayson Williams. In Baucom’s up and down philosophy, minutes are always available, and I suspect Williams will lead all incoming SoCon freshmen in scoring. A looming question for this Bulldog team is who plays the Covington/Anglade role of VMI teams of old? That role is defined by trailing the break and being able to clean up the voluminous three point attempts. I don’t think returning wing Quinton Marshall is capable of occupying that role, but incoming FR stretch 4 Connor Schroeder and Qwandell Newton might be. Regardless, we’re going to see a lot of guys getting a lot of minutes in Baucom’s first year at the helm. What won’t change is The Citadel’s interior defense numbers. The Bulldogs were dead last in 2PT% defense last year, and Baucom essentially views rim protection as collateral damage. No matter what happens, this season’s The Citadel squad is one to keep a close eye on.

9. VMI– On the other side of The Citadel/Baucom coin is the question of what happens to VMI this year under new HC Dan Earl? Earl takes over in Lexington after serving as an associate head coach under Ed DeChellis at Navy (and Penn State). Earl certainly knows the academy culture and is ostensibly a sensible hire, and he inherits a fairly loaded veteran roster. The issue is how do the returning Keydets respond to what is likely to be a totally different offensive philosophy? Earl’s background suggests that VMI will take a SIGNIFICANT step back from being the fastest paced team in the country, as the Navy teams in which he was in charge of the offense routinely finished in the 300s in terms of adjusted tempo. Earl is in a very unique/weird situation in terms of taking over a roster built to attack, attack, attack. Nevertheless, he has talent and experience to work with, as mass roster defection didn’t really occur with the coaching change. The backcourt returns PG Julian Eleby, who averaged 27ppg his last four games of the season last year (partially thanks to 4 OT sessions in that span), and volume three point shooter Tim Marshall, who jacked up 256 3PTA last year. Earl also inherits a ton of athleticism and length at the wings with Jordan Weethee (rivaled only by ETSU’s Deuce Bello as the best athlete in the SoCon), Trey Chapman, Fred Iruafemi, and Armani Branch. Additionally, the aforementioned Phillip Anglade returns, but with a far less defined role in Earl’s likely more methodical offense. In short, Earl inherits a lot of experience, but that experience is used to playing in a unique style. I’ll be interested to see how Earl approaches this season without his “style” of player on the roster, particularly with the lack of a traditional frontcourt. There’s talent on this roster, and the fact that they stuck around for a total regime change is intriguing. [10/5 UPDATE: QJ PETERSON HAS RETURNED TO VMI FOR THE START OF PRACTICE. Peterson was one of the top scorers in the country before taking a medical furlough for the second half of the season. Peterson’s return essentially means Dan Earl has all five starters from last year back.]

10. Samford– Samford is likely better than a 10th place SoCon finish, but with the roster overhaul second year coach Scott Padgett has to endure, it’s the most reasonable spot to place them. Samford was a tough team to figure out last year, as Padgett tried to blend young talent with inherited veterans. They lost their first 8 SoCon games before winning 5 in a row, only to lose 5 of their last 6. Out of all of Padgett’s different roster combos, one thing was clear, Chris Cunningham is the foreseeable future of the program. Cunningham was sixth in assist rate in SoCon play, and showed a knack for getting to the rim via dribble penetration. Unfortunately, he didn’t show much of a jump shot. If Cunningham develops any semblance of a jumper in his SO year, he’ll be a first team SoCon selection. The backcourt is fairly stacked for Padgett, as Derius Jones-Gibson, the team’s best on ball defender, and streaky shooter Marcus Johnson also return. Padgett showed a definite propensity for ball pressure last year, and I don’t expect that to change this year, especially with the 30 second shot clock. The biggest concern for Padgett has to be the frontcourt, but he addressed that with a lot of FR talent to help foul prone Alex Peters and undersized but effective Jamal Shabazz. Wyatt Walker leads the way in terms of the incoming frontcourt help. Walker is likely a day one starter for Padgett. Potential stretch 4 Matt Rose from Kentucky and Dakota Quinn (son of former NFL QB Jonathan Quinn) are likely to see a ton of immediate minutes as well. UMES grad transfer Iman Johnson is a likely starter at the 3. Padgett has done a tremendous job addressing the talent gap at Samford with immediate help, but he also has Auburn transfer Alex Thompson and UMass wing Demetrius Dyson coming in next year. The future is bright at Samford, and they’re by no means an easy out this year.